Alexandria City High School is ready to reopen at full capacity next month, principal says

Summer school is in full swing, and Alexandria City High School Principal Peter Balas says he and his staff will be ready to open to five days a week of in-person instruction when the 2021-2022 school year starts on August 24.

“We’ll be ready on August 24,” Balas told ALXnow. “I’m excited. Anything other than my kitchen table five days a week would be wonderful… I hope we start in August with no masks, no restrictions.”

Wrapping up his fourth year at the helm of the biggest high school in Virginia, Balas isn’t your ordinary principal. On one bicep he has a tattoo of Madonna, on the other a quote by Shakespeare, and on a recent summer day sported a T-shirt that said, “We are on an anti-racist journey!”

It’s more than just a clever shirt, since his school was recently renamed. For 50 years it was T.C. Williams High School, a name that Balas and many of his colleagues didn’t look too far into until last year, when community activists reminded the School Board that Williams — the former superintendent of Alexandria City Public Schools for three decades — was a staunch segregationist.

“I remember when I first started teaching here, I had no idea who he was,” Balas said.

Now, with about 630 or so students attending summer school five days a week, Balas is hoping to start the next school year at full capacity — nearly 4,000 students — and to open without restrictions. There will also be security challenges, as the City Council recently voted to eliminate funding for the School Resource Officer program, which takes away the presence of armed police officers at the school, and Balas said the security company that ACPS contracts with does not handle criminal activity.

ACPS is reportedly working with the police department to continue a police presence in schools.

“We do have security officers who are contracted employees who help us ask your kids to class, check passes, clear hallways,” he said. “They help us through hallways and they do help us break up altercations. They are unarmed. They help with security, but they are not the people you call if there’s a crime or if there is suspicion of a crime.”

Balas started his teaching career at the school more than a decade ago, before becoming an assistant principal at T.C. for three years and then principal at Mount Vernon Community School for five years. He tears up at the prospect of returning to full capacity next month, and said his staff will need time to share their stories.

“We probably need some trauma processing time together,” Balas said. “I think [educators] need a chance to process with their colleagues what they’ve been through, what it meant for them, what are they looking forward to and what do they fear going forward.”

He says ACHS will see an impact from learning loss.

“There are certain courses where skills are cascading,” he said. “What our teachers are going to have to do is take a look at and measure what that loss was, and what are the gaps that have to be filled.”

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